A Travellerspoint blog

Ben Hur? Meet Billy The Kid!

Antakya

In the past when I’ve been a member of a pub quiz team, I’ve waited with frustrated anticipation for a question that runs along the lines of ‘What is the connection between Ben Hur and Billy The Kid’? I’ve convinced myself that I’ll be the only person in the room who knew the answer and would win the game on the back of it. Alas, it never happened.

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This is a roundabout way of introducing you to Antakya, Antioch of the classical world and possibly the first place where the term ‘Christian’ was heard. Founded by one of Alexander's generals, Antioch soon became a major trading route of the Silk Road; it also built itself a reputation for...excess. So much so, that St Peter himself (obviously before being sainted) chose Antioch as the site of one of the world's first Christian communities.

Under the Romans, Antioch continued to prosper (and this is where people should start paying attention to Ben and Billy) and it was only with the rise of Constantinople that the city went into a decline. The Crusaders rampaged through here, capturing the city and slaughtering the defenders in 1098, but the Mamlukes of Egypt recaptured Antioch almost 200 years later.

Although little remains of the Roman period in modern Antakya, a trip to the archaeological museum will satisfy any Romanophiles thirst for knowledge, as the museum has some fine mosaics and statues recovered from the city and outlying areas. Conveniently, the city is neatly divided by the River Asi: whatever it looked like a thousand years ago, today it is a sluggish, muddy green colour, fished by a couple of anglers, more in hope than anticipation I fear, and home to many of the town’s discarded plastic bottles.

Hurriyet Cadessi, where many of the hotels, restaurants, a couple of excellent juice counters and a hole in the wall bar, where I was made very welcome, are based, seems to be undergoing major, permanent subsidence and consequent repair, the air is full of dust and the heavy traffic adds to the air pollution. The east bank of the river also houses the bazaar or perhaps more accurately, souk, which is certainly worth getting lost in for a few hours, as you never know what you might find!

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Tahir Shah is an author who now lives in Casablanca and he has a failsafe way of working out whether a market is a tourist trap or somewhere for locals, that tourists simply turn up at. If the market has stalls selling underpants, its authentic, if not, it's a means of parting travellers from their cash. Antakya bazaar has underpants stalls aplenty, so easily passes the Shah Test, which is good enough for me.

Being part of The Hatay (an artificial concoction of Ataturk's), the city has an Arab feel to it and that is reflected in both language and food. Most people's first language is Arabic and that can be heard on the streets and read on the walls and I found the food spicier and richer than other parts of Turkey.

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A visit to the Syriac Orthodox Church

This church was just down the road from where I was staying and I went early in the day but was told to come back at 5pm. I thought this was unusual but didn’t give it much thought; but when I was passing at 4pm a tour group was just leaving, so I thought I’d take advantage of the open gates. I was told if I was quick I could come in. This was certainly odd behaviour as the churches and mosques throughout my trip bend over backwards to welcome visitors. I was then asked where the rest of my group was. When I explained I was by myself everything changed and I was welcomed with open arms.

My guide, Isaac, explained what was going on. A few months ago, a Catholic Bishop was murdered by his Turkish driver in Iskenedrun (so much for being laid back!) and since then, visitors to the church have been vetted, more so if they are in groups. As Isaac explained, the church didn’t want any trouble from their Muslim neighbours and was trying to keep a low profile, hence the increased security.

The moment Isaac mentioned this murder, I remembered the case, so it was little surprise that there was genuine concern. The motive for the killing of Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar for Anatolia, remains unclear, but it has put the small group of Christians who live in this part of Turkey very much on their guard.

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For some reason I had supposed this was a Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox church, but it was actually Syrian (or more accurately now, Syriac since 2000) and it’s Bishopric was in Damascus and not Constantinople (as Isaac refereed to Istanbul. He also called Antakya, Antioch). The service continues to be in Aramaic, the language of Christ and the priest who serves a diminishing and ageing congregation, is himself 85.

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Isaac no longer lives in Antakya, but in Sydney, where he operates a Portuguese Fast Food franchise (!) and has done so for the past decade. His parents continue to live in the town and Isaac tries to come home for a month every year. He explained that the local community has become scattered in the past six decades, although he remained cautious about putting forward a reason for this diaspora. It seems caution has become default attitude of these Christians.

Isaac thought the church itself was 200 – 220 years old and only had a full congregation during the winter months, as during the summer many people left for extended holidays with their ex pat families. It was a building that held echoes of loss, for what was but never could be again. I was reminded of my visit to Aya Sofia in Istanbul, where I left feeling that the people who built this place were geniuses, but it was a building that no longer had a reason to be, apart from to be admired. The church in Antakya still functioned as a church, so continued to fulfil its purpose as a place of worship; perhaps not in the numbers they once did, or in the safety they once did, but they persevere.

As to the answer to the connection between Ben Hur and Billy the Kid, I’ll leave you to work that out. If you want a clue, look to a Union general during the American Civil War...

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Posted by johnward 07:54 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

iPhones, Nargiles & Headscarves

Iskenderun

I would have to travel a considerable distance to find a more relaxed town in Turkey as Iskenderun. It has what estate agents would call ‘prime beach front location’ (although you will have to travel a few kilometres to find a suitable beach), there is still some lingering French influence in the architecture, a hangover from when this part of Turkey belonged to French controlled Syria (by the bye, Syria want it back); the town has soaring mountains surrounding it, there is a university, so that means plenty of young people and it’s easy to get a beer if you want one.

You can walk along the promenade at sunset (or sunrise if the mood takes you), take a boat trip up the coast or simply sit and watch the sun go down, sipping on that beer.

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In many ways, Iskenderun could be the poster boy or girl for a modern Turkey and this got me thinking about the past few weeks travelling through eastern Turkey and now into The Hatay. Sitting in a cafe one afternoon, at the table next to me, was a young man, mid 20’s, sharp suit, big tie, working his iphone for all it was worth and puffing on a nargile. On the face of it, there is nothing unusual about any of this – many Turks smoke a nargile to relax; but it did start me thinking about some of the contradictions and internal tensions within the country, tensions that may have serious consequences for the country’s future.

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One of the most divisive issues in Turkey at the moment is the wearing of headscarves and whether women, who do wear a headscarf in public, are to all intents and purposes denied access to a university education, which is the present situation.

When the modern republic was founded in 1923, Ataturk made it clear that the future of the country lay with the west and not the traditional Turkish/Ottoman heartlands; to that end he established equality between the sexes, abolished the fez as an item of headgear, introduced the Latin alphabet, made it a legal requirement for Turks to take a surname and declared the Sufi tekkes illegal, in case their influence interfered with his secular policies. At a stroke, Ataturk overturned 700 years of so of tradition and history. This was always going to be a powder keg that could explode.

Everywhere I’ve travelled in the east, there has been an aspect of everyday Turkish life I have trouble understanding; how does the lifestyle of a girl or young woman from a more traditional, conservative family intersect with those of her counterpart from a more liberal family. I have lost count of the times I’ve seen a couple of women, linked arm in arm, walking down the street. One would not look out of place on the streets of London, New York or Paris. Her partner, would, in contrast, conform to western stereotypes of the repressed, head scarfed woman and feed and reinforce those prejudices we have of Islam.

Styles of dress send a signal, deliberate or not, to outsiders. In this case one says ‘’I am from a traditional family and with that is attached certain principles and approach to life’’. The other implies, ‘’I am of your world, the 21st century, modern world’’. If that is right, then where is the point of mutual contact that makes these women such close friends? So far the only answer I’ve received when I’ve tried to dig deeper is ‘Its usual in Turkey’.

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Immediately we’re in a difficult area - that of language. Most Europeans tend to use language as a shorthand for increasingly complex social, political and religious circumstances. For example if we use the word ‘modern’, we equate that with progressive and forward looking. Nowadays when we use the word Islam, we tend to think in regressive, backward terms. It has become the polar opposite of modern, and for this I lay the blame firmly at the door of politicians and the media, who have their own political agendas in demonising the entire Muslim world.

The issue of the headscarf has polarised Turkey over the past few years; those who oppose the wearing of the scarf in public sat it is a threat to Turkey's secular constitution, while those who support the wearing of the scarf say that the ban infringes human rights and a woman's right to choice. Only this week, Istanbul University was ordered by the Higher Education Board to overturn the expulsion of a student wearing a headscarf.

The headscarf has become a political symbol for two increasingly entrenched points of view, and it means any rational, constructive debate is becoming nigh on impossible. Secularism is enshrined in the constitution and for pro secularists is not up for discussion. Yet this, the pro Islamic groups would argue, ignores the the guarantee of freedom of belief, also enshrined in the constitution. It also ignores the fundamental fact that much of the country has rediscovered its link to Islam.

When I travel I hope to engage with that country as much as possible and to do that, you must ask questions and challenge your own preconceptions of a country and its people. In many ways the headscarf issue is an obvious example of some of the contradictions to be found within Turkey; obvious because you can see it on the street every day. But with one foot in Europe (albeit leaving a miniscule footprint), and the other one in Asia, perhaps it is the perfect metaphor for modern Turkey.

How does a country that underwent such fundamental birth pangs, rejecting centuries of history, tradition and belief in a moment, come to grips with a renewed interest and belief in Islam? The third largest mosque in the world, the Sabahci Camii in Adana was finished in 1998 and paid for primarily by public subscription. The extra money was found by a local family made good, and their name now hangs over the door.

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In the past 40 years there have been several military coups, not to reinforce democracy but to guarantee Ataturk’s vision of a secular Turkey. Today’s Turkey embraces the mobile phone, Facebook and the internet cafe but blocks access to YouTube or similar social network sites. The country is a vital ally to the west in the region, but must find a way of accommodating it's minorities and that includes those who wish to practice their religion openly. How, is another question!

We may see the young businessman puffing on his nargile as having a foot in several camps; Europe and Asia, Modern and Traditional, Facebook and Koran, but I doubt he sees it that way. Maybe the reality is that the old Turkey simply never went away and old and new exist side by side, interacting in a way I simply don't understand.

And just to show that I haven't forgotten that this is a travel blog, I heartily recommend a visit to Iskenderun!!

Posted by johnward 00:47 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

A Crusader's Folly

Sanliurfa

The journey by bus from Diyarbakir to Sanliurfa is less than three air conditioned, free ice cold water on demand, hours away on a good road. The landscape is sun blasted, rocky and mainly treeless and still hot; and we are in October!

The landscape lulls you and I find my mind drifting back almost a thousand years, when during the First Crusade, Baldwin, an ambitious French count, saw an opportunity to carve a little empire for himself. He and a few men at arms, split from the main Crusader army and headed east. The result was the County of Edessa, the first, the most isolated, the most landlocked and therefore most vulnerable of the Crusader States.

Edessa is only one of the names that Sanliurfa has been known by and Baldwin, one of many conquerors. Jewish and Muslim sources say that it was whilst living here, that Abraham was called upon by God to move, with his family to Canaan; Job the Prophet is reputed to have been a one time resident and the city is a major pilgrim site for Muslims who visit the pool where Abraham was thrown by Nimrod before being saved by God.

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Whatever your thoughts on any of that, there is no doubt that people have lived here for millennia; the Hurri, the Hittites, the Assyrians, Alexander the Great dropped by (after defeating the Persians nearby, Alexander named the city Edessa after a city in Macedonia), Nestorian Christians, Byzantines, Arabs, Bladwin and his men at arms, the Mongols (almost inevitably) and the Ottomans. For centuries the city was simply known as Urfa. The prefix Sanli was added in the 1920's after the city held out against attacking French forces during the Turkish War of Independence.

In many ways Sanliurfa is the perfect example of what a traveller can expect in eastern Turkey. It has a history going back thouisands of years, it has a warmth and friendliness that it readily extends to strangers, a wonderful bazaar, great food and a good local museum with some extremely fine exhibits and finds from local sites. I always try and visit the local museum, because it often helps put things in context for me.

Sanliurfa's museum contains some beautiful examples of jewellry, metalwork, calligraphy and glassware. It also has examples of skillfully carved and decorated doors and window shutters and eight wooden and plaster statues of Madonna and Child and Jesus of the Sacred Heart. It was while looking at these I got to thinking about how powerful history and the writing of history is and how it can create and maintain a country's image of itself. In every museum I've been in in the east, including Ankara's Anatolian Museum of Civilisation, there seems to be a pattern emerging in the way that exhibits are displayed, labelled and placed in context. Pre eminence seems to be given to pre historical societies and civilisations, followed by Islamic, then Ottoman. Some of the other, equally important periods, - Greek, Roman, Armenian- seem to be treated as an afterthought or add on.

I may be wrong, but in Sanilurfa's museum, there was very little mention of the Armenians, despite the fact that an Armenian cathedral was built in the city at the end of the nineteenth century and the plaster and wooden statues had no labelling that I could see, to let people know what they were, where they came from etc.

History is always written by the victors, but it is often one sided and unbalanced and I fear museums are shortchanging visitors by not giving a fuller story.

Museum's aside, Sanliurfa, like the trip here, lulls you and it's done in a very subtle, deceptive way. It works on you, it gets under your skin, because it doesn't oversell itself to you. The mosques, the bazaar, the kale are all there. If you want to visit, that's fine, if not, that's fine as well as they'll still be here when you've packed up and moved on.

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Like many cities in the east, the countryside around Sanliurfa is undergoing a massive rebuilding programme. Money is pouring into the east in the shape of new roads, bridges and airports. Many of the mosques are also undergoing facelifts and the Ulu Cami is no exception. That shouldn't stop you from going in and spending some time chatting to the workmen who are proud of what they're achieving.

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It's also worth turning right rather than walk straight on. One afternoon I walked up Asfal Caddessi that leads to the city's five cemeteries. A small mosque is attached to the site and sitting outside were a vgroup of half a dozen men, who invited me over for a chat. It turned out that they were the gravediggers, security guard and the men who brought the coffins to the cemetery for burial. We were soon joined by the manager and soon after by cups of cay.

We talked about our families, where we lived and how we approach death and burial in different ways. Then we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. The thing I've learnt from the past weeks is take time, walk the streets, sit, wait, listen and always accept a cup of cay when it's offered. You never know what might happen.

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We've gone full circle. We're back with the Crusader knight, Baldwin, who created a kingdom for himself and his family. Like many kingdoms it was short lived, lasting barely 50 years, before it fell to a Muslim army from Aleppo. Its conquest led directly to the Second Cruseade, the Second to the Third, the Third to the Fourth...

It seems now that we are in a permanent state of conflict with the Muslim world and the increasingly vicious battle between modern Crusader and Jihadist carries on, albeit with modern, state of the art, cutting edge, smart bombs that inflict only'minimal collateral damage' or the human suicide bomb that has equal disregard for life. Whilst the weapons are 21st century, the mindset of many on both sides of this interminable war, remain firmly entrenched in the Middle Ages. No doubt Baldwin would have understood and probably approved.

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Posted by johnward 05:51 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Diyarbakir - the sound of a city

If you can't have the lamb, avoid the chicken If you can't avoid the chicken, Go Hungry!

First some of the facts: the otogar is miles outside the city. Save yourself the hassle and get a taxi. There is an excellent tourist bureau, run by an incredibly efficient and knowledgeable lady, an anthropologist be training, who will give you free maps, a small guide book and even a CD. There are banks aplenty with ATM's and even a couple of bureau de changes, all to be found on Gazi Caddessi.

The tourist season is coming to a close in this part of Turkey so be prepared for plenty of polite inquiries as to whether you would like the services of a professional guide. There's no hassle and it usually involves good conversation over a cup of cay.

I really liked Diyarbakir. When I arrived it was pitch black but it was easy to make out the enormous air force base just on the outskirts of the city and I wondered what the military presence would be like here. Although recently, the region has not had the violence that was a constatnt fearture here through the late 1980's and well into the 1990's, it is still a very sensitive place. Just before I arrived I had been talking to someone in Van, who has been a regular visitor to this part of Turkey for a number of years, and he remembers in the not too distant past, helicopter gunships buzzing over the city as a regular occurance.

Just an aside - if you are making the trip here from Van, the countryside is truly astounding. It was a shame that darkness came at 6.30pm when the bus was still and hour or so away from the city, but as compensation, I could enjoy the sight of dozens of fields alight as farmers burnt off the stubble in readiness for a new crop.

My first full day I went for a look outside the gigantic city walls, coming across the usual Attaturk memorial but more interestingly meeting Hakim, the Kurdish owner of a street cay shop. We sat together, exchanging names and where we came from - no more than that. When I offered to pay, he refused.

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Looking back on the notes I made on that first day I wrote: ''Today I have been mostly eating street food, drinking Kurdish cay and sleeping in the park. All good!'' and that really did sum up my experience. By the end of that first day the sound of the city I was left with was the jests blasting off from the airbase on the outskirts of tow. There must have been a dozen or so, leaving in pairs, for I assume practice flights somewhere over the Mesopotamian plain.

The food is great in Diyarbakir, also plentiful and cheap. I ate really well at a stalls in the street for no more than 6YTL, and 12YTL if I went into a restaurant and sat down. It's when you go into the restaurants that you can see the impact the dearth of tourists is having in this part of Turkey. Granted that the season is coming to an end for organised tours, but I have seen very few independent travellers in Diyarbakir, and that holds true for everywhere I've been since I left Istanbul in the middle of last month.

Diyarbakir is essentially a Kurdish city, the vast majority of the population are Kurds, the language you hear on the streets, the clothing, the food are all Kurdish and sometimes it's a little difficult to know how to broach the subject of someone's ethnicity. Simply wait long enough and it'll happen of its own accord. In the restaurant, the waiter said to me ''Kurdish restaurant. Kurdish tea. Not Turkish.'' So from there it wasn't too difficult to work out where he stood, And this sort of thing happened all the time. All you have to do is sit and wait and people will start to talk to you.

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The Ulu Mosque is the largest in Diyarbakir and unfortunately it was undergoing extensive repair and renovatiopn work. However, I walked through the gate, took a seat with some elderly gents who were just chatting, and the magic happened all over again. One turned to me and asked ''Allemagne''. I said ''No, Irish'' and we were off. He couldn't speak any English but I worked out that he'd worked in Germany for two decades or so and had now returned home. He finished by letting me take his photo nad saying ''This Kurdland. There Turkey.'' gesturing far away. Once again, I knew where he stood!

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And this was just the start. A terrific rainstorm drove everyone under cover and soon in sign language and gesture we were having a conversation. Obviously many of these men had either worked abroad themselves, mostly in Europe or had family away. Very quickly, I was drawing maps, plotting the realtive distanced of Diyarbakir from Germany, Holland, Denmark and Canada.

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Apart from that first day, when jet fighters were screeching overhead and I saw two APC's out by the sports stadium, I haven't seen one soldier in uniform on the street. Now, there could be a variety of reasons for this - it may be deemed too provocative, they may be banned from doing so, the militart may thing it unsafe, I don't know, I can only speculate. But I've seen very little active support for the PKK, just some old graffiti in some of the backstreets. One of the questions I wanted to ask but couldn't, mainly due to no language skills, is do the Kurd in Diyarbakir feel that they are living under occupation, or is that something that has been consigned to the past?

As I'm writing this, I can hear the sound of hammering from a nearby garage, one of the cay sellers moving through the park and the general hubbub of a city and it' people simply getting on with life. That is the sound of the city I will take away with me.

ps

My mantra when travelling is avoid the chicken at all costs after a particularly memorable technicolour experience in Manali, northern India in 1993. You have been warned.

Posted by johnward 09:05 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

All Along The Watchtower (with apologies to Jimi Hendrix)

Ani is 45 km from Kars and as close to the Armenian border as its possible to get without showing a visa - assuming the border was open. Which its not; and is likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future. So, if you're without your own transport, you'll probably have to use one of the local tour operators. The more peole there are the less it costs per person and vice versa. There were only two of us...

So, if Kars is almost the last major town in Turkey before the border, Ani is definetely, the last lonely outpost. It wasn't always so. Standing here on a boiling hot day in September, the ground parched, barely a breeze to lift a moths wing never mind dry your sweat, it's hard to believe this was the political, cultural and military centre of a vibrant Armenian kingdom. But it was; and like most kingdoms it rose, fell and settled into total obscurity for a thousand years. Until fairly recently, Ani was used as a place for local farmers to graze their animals and for birds to make their nests.

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Visiting today, you could almost believe that Ani remaned undiscovered; there was only a dozen visitors all told - a tour group from Istanbul and a local family, picking herbs to add to cay. There was barely a sound - some birds, the river two hundred feet below and the slightest breeze blowing through the abandoned churches, cathedrals and mosques. The only man made sound came from across the border - a solitary bulldozer working in a quarry. And you have to remember that this border was Turkey's frontline, and therefore the West's border, with the Soviet Union from the 1920's.

Most visitors don't come for a history leasson in regional geo politics, they come to see the abandoned churches and the site of possibly the oldest mosque in Anatolia. And it's a visit well worth making.

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The site sprawls across this arid plateau, but walking at a reasonable pace, you can cover everything in three hours, with enough time to get your breath back. My particular favourite is the Church of St Gregory. Now there are three churches dedicated to the sainted Gregory and I liked the 'one with the frescoes'.

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Although I have no religious faith of my own I can appreciate what it took to build these monuments to God. And this I think is the secret to 'understanding' Ani. If you are part of a group who visits the site, you are there for no more than three hours, so there is a compulsion to get around everything. This I think, could be a mistake, because you need to set time aside whilst there, to sit and wonder at what was achieved. How the stone was brought here, the expertise and great skill needed to build these small, but perfectly formed churches. I wanted to think about the people who lived, worked and died here (it is estimated that at it's height Ani had 100,000 inhabitants), what was life like for these people...? Like most places of worth, it raises more questions than answers.

And this brings us back to where we started: Ani as a lonely outpost. Until the mid 1980's Ani was off limits to foreigners ( the kalle still is, whatever the temptation may be for a quick exploration). The width of a narrow river formed a geograhical and political fault line between the two super powers, a border that until fairly recently was still mined on the Armenian side.

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But it also formed and continues to do so, a cultural and spiritual faultline beween Turkey and modern Armenia.

Armenia, and it has many supporters, claims that a genocide was carried out on Ottoman Armenians in 1915, and there is growing support for a recognition of this first Holocaust of the 20th century. Turkey admits that some terrible things did happen to the Armenians, but it wasn't part of a systematic plan. Turkey refuses to give any more ground than this. The situation is unlikely to change as Turkey remains a powerful ally of the western powers in the region and a lucrative economic trading partner in the future. Many people do not want to rock too many boats

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Meanwhile the border remains firmly closed and when the tourists depart, the cows and the birds are left in peace again.

Posted by johnward 01:14 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Interrupting Seamus

Kars, Turkey

You'll have to stick with me on this one, the interruption comes at the end. First a little background.

When I was at school I loved English literature lessons. My dad had, from a really early age, passed on his love of reading to me and its stayed with me all of my life. The only two things that I didn't really enjoy were Shakesspeare and poetry. There were two reasons for this: firstly I think they were badly taught - teachers were bored with the same lessons year after year and had lost their enthusiasm and secondly, a 16 year old by and large, hasn't the maturity or understanding to get the most out of either subject. You do enough to pass an exam, little more.

Fast forward 35 years and I'm in Eastern Turkey. Before I left on ths trip I decided to take one guide book, one general book to dip in and out of and three volumes pf poetry by the Irish writer, Seamus Heaney. I made a decision that I would spend time getting to know the works by reading, re reading and thinking about what I'd read.

And I have to say it has been time well spent. He writes about ordinary things, for ordinary people in a quite extraordinary way and he has been a constant companion with me at meal times on buses and trains at the tops of mountains; which is bringing me to the interruption.

Kars in eastern Anatolia is a border town. It's hard up against Georgia and Armenia and not a million miles away from Iran. And like all border towns it has a real end of the road feel about it; its got an energy and excitement and you can quite easily imagine resourceful 'entrepreneurs' doing very well here.

And also, like many border towns, it has quite a history: it had its own dynasty of Armenian rulers and was the capital of a region known as Vanand. It was variously known as "Karuts K'aghak'" (Kars city), "Karuts Berd", "Amrotsn Karuts" (both meaning Kars Fortress) and "Amurn Karuts" (Sturdy Kars).

It changed hands between the Sejuks and Byzantine empires and then in the 13th century, the Georgians made an unwelcome appearance, who, in turn, were swiftly replaced by the Turks. In 1387 the city surrendered, probably wisely, to Tamerlane, who was followed by Anatolian beyliks, who were followed by the Ottomans... You take my point.

It's a city that has had to adapt over many centuries to many different rulers and customs. This often makes for a flourishing enterprise culture. However, I think some of its most interesting times were ahead of it.

In 1807 Kars successfully resisted an attack by the Russians, but after a second siege in 1828 the city was surrendered to the Russian general, Count Ivan Paskevich. This was the beginning of what was to make Kars unique in Turkey. The city returned to Ottoman control but the border between the Ottoman and Russian Empires changed, placing Kars much closer to Russian influence. During the Crimean War an Ottoman garrison led by British officers, once again had to face the Russians. This time it wasn't Russian guns that won the day, but an outbreak of cholera and lack of food that forced the city to surrender once again.

There is something about Kars that attracts trouble. The Ottomans and the Russians were at it again in the 1870's and this time the Russians kept it until 1918. Before the merry go round started again, an architectural style took hold in the city that you won't find anywhere else in Turkey. It's been called Baltic Russian and is the result of what often happens when a victorious power transplants it's citizens to a new part of the Empire; they bring home with them. This may be in the style of cooking, or music, or dress or architecture. Concentrated in a small part of Kars are some really fine Russian buildings; some are designed exclusively as homes and are lived in today by Turkish families. Others are particularly grand and were probably designed as administrative and government buildings. Today one is a police station and others are the homes of Turkish businesses. Sadly, many are falling into disrepair and are falling down.

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By 1918 of course the old Russian Empire was no more; the tsar had been replaced by Leninhis didn't really mean much as the Tsar had been deposed and although the Bolsheviks were in control in Moscow and St Petersburg, their writ did not extend to Kars where an alliance of Armenian and White Russian troops were in charge. After lots of political shilly shallying and double dealing, Kars became the capital of the Vanand province of the Armenian Republic. This is where we may be today, if it weren't for that old Kars magic. A border skirmish (ah, that old favourite of generals, the border skirmish) kicked off the Turkish-Armenian War. Once the dust had settled on this latest round of 'Pass the Kars', the Turks were back in control.

Now the Bolsheviks invaded Armeania, so Turkey now signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union that seemed to settle the issue once and for all and establish peaceful relations between the two nations, but as early as 1939, some British diplomats noted indications that the Soviet Union was not satisfied with the established border. On more than one occasion, the Soviets attempted to renegotiate with Turkey to at least allow the Armenians access to the ancient ruins of Ani. However, the government in Ankara refused these attempts.

We're almost there now, just aquick precis of 1945 - 2010. After the war, Russia wanted it's old territory back. Turkey wanted peaceful relations with its Superpower neighbour, but didn't want to give up territory to do so. Fortunately for Turkey, both the US and Britain said no to Stalin and we were now in the Cold War, which is exactly where we stood until 1989.

It was while I was digesting all this, and plenty more besides, I decided to take myself up to Kars Kalesi the castle that overlooks the town and from where the British led the ultimately doomed defence of the town during the Crimean War.

It was a fantastic day, blue sky, a soothing breeze to cool you down after the steep climb, and for an hour I had the place entirely to myself, apart from Seamus, who I settled down to read. I'd barely turned a page, when a BOOM! followed in quick succession by several moe BOOMS! echoed across the countryside. On a ridge, perhaps four or five miles away, the Turkish army were practicing, for perhaps the next time they will have to defend Kars. Nothing, it seems, changes.

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Posted by johnward 07:05 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Ask for Genghis

Erzurum

The morning I left for Erzurum, I was woken by the call to prayer from outside the window and the sound of vomiting from the neighbouring room. I'm not sure there's anything worth reading into those two events, but I thought I'd mention it.

The trip to Erzurum is what you expect in this part of Turkey - it's long and can be slow, but there's always something happening: the young woman on the bus, desperately trying to have an intimate conversation with her boyfriend, but finding it difficult with so many people around; because there's no smoking allowed, and Turks smoke like fiends, its often possible to tell who's close to cracking; the smokers dash for the exit when there's a scheduled stop; the mother travelling alone with her two year old child, and the way people looked out for her.

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The other thing I love about travelling long distance on Turkish buses is the onboard ritual. It's very important that you sit in the seat allocated to you, unless of course your neighbour happens to be a woman that you're not related to, then some readjustment is needed; the care and attention that surrounds the refreshments - which would you prefer, tea, coffee or a soft drink. I always opt for coffee, which is Nescafe in a sachet with milk granules already added. It tastes foul but it seems to give me that mid morning pick up.

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Refreshments always mean some very nice cake and I can heartily recommend the cherry option. What is really impressive is that the driver's assistant, when it comes to pouring hot water from a flask onto the coffee, never seems to scald either himself or the passenger - bearing in mind that the bus is moving at a considerable speed over, often bumpy roads. Once the passengers have been fed and watered, the assistant then hands out scented wipes or my particular favourite, the astringent lemon scented solution that you can rub over your face, neck, hand and through your hair. I often end a journey smelling of summer!

The landscape is perhaps also what you'd expect in this part of Turkey - a desert full of rust reds, , oranges, dun browns and metallic whites. There are large splashes of green - poplars I think - and a range of higher hills in the distance, lost in the heat. There's a lot of work being done on developing new roads and building new bridges. For mile after mile we ran alongside an abandoned railway line; track uprooted and rolling stock heaved to the side. I wonder could this be part of the original Constantinople to Baghdad line built by the Ottomans and Germans?

Arrived and settled in the hotel, I went in search of a shave, which I found without any great difficulty. The one unexpected development was at the call to prayer at sunset, the barber made profuse apologies, pointed to the mosque and went to say his prayers. He was back within five or six minutes and did an excellent job.

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Erzurum hasn't got a vast array of monuments to see and those they do have are under scaffolding, but there is a nice feeling about the town. The people are friendly and are interested in why you're here and what you think of their city. The city itself has a half finished feel to it, although it's been here for millenia and fought over countless times. I think one of the reasons that it has this atmosphere is its position - it's surrounded by mountains and the roads seem to disappear into the distance.

Erzurum is also a place of contrast and contradiction. There are more women wearing headscarves or the full chador,

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and 'Salaam Aleikum' is now a more popular greeting than towns and cities further west in Turkey.

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Alongside this is the advertisers tempting everyone with the latest fashions, with High Street brands we would all recognise, and restaurants and bars aimed at the university population of the city. I'm unsure whether Turkey has managed what many other countries have tried and failed to do and that is have a diverse population that has genuine mutual understanding and respect for each other, r is this a potential flashpoint, a clash of views that has no obvious solution for all groups. I fear the latter.

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What I do know for certain is that a copy of Seamus Heaney's poems alongside you at dinner can lead to an unforgettable meal. Salon Aysa looks like a works canteen from the outside, but the couple of times I passed it, t was always full, usually of Turkish families. My last evening in Erzurum I popped in. I had Seamus by my side and tgis seemed to cause some excitement amongst the waiters. One recognised part of the title and that then got us chatting. It turned out his name was Genghis and he and his colleagues couldn't do enough for me. It was one of those times that makes travel worthwhile. We both had the inclination to communicate and that's exactly what happened, with a few words, some miming and itv all ended with handshakes all round.

If you're ever in Erzurum, ask for Genghis.

Posted by johnward 09:20 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Amasya - Two thousand years old and still going strong

Leaving Ankara by bus will mean a visit to the long distance station known as ASTI. Asking for the otogar will get you nowhere, trust me on this; it’s ASTI or nothing!

The trip to ASTI would easily qualify for the ‘most frightening 20 minutes spent in a car travelling at less than 10mph for more than 50% of the total trip’ award (if there was such a thing). Ankara traffic at morning rush hour is bad, but I’m sure, no worse than most other major cities in the world, but there did seem a certain amount of tension in the air; my taxi driver, an elderly gent who’d probably seen it all before coped admirably with the random reversing into four lanes of traffic, the unexpected halt to drop someone off or pick someone up - the complete and utter arbitrary nature of driving in a city where 90% of the traffic is herded down a route that can only handle 50% of the vehicles.

ASTI is another revelation – for a bus station it is vast. There are dozens of companies, between them offering hundreds of destinations at varying prices. I wander, not aimlessly, because I pass each counter in turn shouting ‘Amasya, Amasya?’ I must have started at the right end because very quickly I was called over to a desk, sold a ticket and was on the bus, which left barely ten minutes later.

There’s only a dozen or so passengers in total, one driver and his assistant, who hands out tea, coffee, soft drinks, water and cake pretty much on demand. This sort of service always makes a trip more enjoyable and seem to go a lot quicker. The five hours flew past and really before I knew it, the bus was arriving in Amasya. If you can get the driver to drop you along Attaturk Caddesi before reaching the otogar, it’s only a short walk to most of the accommodation in town.

Amasya is just over 300km from Ankara, but it’s also a lifestyle and 2000 years away from the capital. The trip here also gives you some idea of the size of the country. We were four hours on the road before we saw a sign for the town and we still at 90km to go! The landscape is hilly steppe, broken by small fields, mostly growing corn that seems burnt by the sun. It’s a tired looking landscape that almost feels a little sorry for itself, as if both it and the people who live here are weary of fighting the sun.

The heights above the town

The heights above the town

But as you drive along Attaturk Caddesi, you can glimpse the river through gaps in the buildings and see the sun reflecting back from whitewashed Ottoman houses, with their distinctive cantilevered windows, and bouncing off minarets that seem sheathed in stainless steel. This is what many people come to Amasya for; a glimpse back into the recent past, when the Ottoman Empire ruled from what is now vast swathes of modern Europe, through the Middle East, to the shores of Russia.

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Amasya is a world that has been created not just by the Ottomans. They are but one in a long line of conquerors who have fought for this land. Greek adventurers and freebooters, Roman generals, Byzantine emperors, Mongol khans and Ottoman sultans, have all left their mark here. And that evidence is all around. A 100m walk from my pansyion brings me to the other side of the river where I can look back and see half timbered Ottoman houses, mosques built by some of the early Islamic conquerors, the site of the original Roman bridge that spanned the river; and then the rock tombs of the Pontic kings who founded the town 2000 years ago. These were kings whose hubris got the better of them. They believed, wrongly as it turned out, that they could take on the Roman Empire and win. They couldn’t.

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And flying above all of this is the flag of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923. I don't want to leave the impression that Amasya is a town caught in time because it isn't. It's a bustling, busy place, full of youn people and students from the local university. What it does seem to have is an understanding of what it has and a real civic pride in itself.

There aren’t many foreign tourists here at this time of year – I have an entire Ottoman mansion to myself - so there’s no need to rush around, with an imaginary tick list. Sit for an hour by the river and think about what’s in front of you and the sort of men and women who created this place over two millennia. It’s worth the effort.

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Posted by johnward 23:46 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Lament for the Wet Shave

Ankara

We all regret the passing of some things. Things that made life that little more enjoyable and worth living. For me (in no particular order) is the lack of manners and general courtesy we show each other; I bemoan the lack of quality fish and chip shops on British high streets; I despair at the current plight of my football team and I wonder where have all the barbers gone and the wet shaves they once provided.

If you’re in search of a wet shave and you pop into your local salon, where customers are now part of an expanding roster of Jason’s the stylist’s clients, the conversation goes something like this:
‘’Any chance of a wet shave?’’
‘’Jase, there’s a bloke here wants, what was it again...?
‘’A wet shave’’
‘’That’s right - Where do we keep ‘em Jase?

I mention this because tonight I went out to buy a bottle of water and wound up having a wet shave in a barber shop in Ankara. There’s no doubt I needed a shave as I had two weeks of growth that has somehow appeared. I happened to pass this barbers that was still open, rubbed my beard, made eye contact and that’s all it took; thirty seconds later I was in the chair being readied for the lather.

Before the lathering comes the application of hot towels, to soften the beard and make the customer more relaxed. Then comes the mixing of the lather, an almost mystical alchemy that whips the lather to a consistency you would find atop a meringue. The lather is mixed in water just the safe side of scalding, which leads to an intake of breath when it’s applied to the face.

Then comes the unwrapping of the fresh blade, quickly followed by the first passing of blade on skin. There’s something a little liberating and slightly crazed about offering your neck to a complete stranger with a blade in his hand, but hey ho.

Once the initial sweep has been done, more lather is applied and a second run begins, this time the barber tidying up as he goes, getting to all those awkward little places, like under the nose and chin. Finally, a quick run with the clippers up the nose and in the ears and the job is done...

...or so I thought. My barber, who could speak no English, which still made him a better linguist than me, produced what looked like a Q Tip that had been on a course of steroids. As he had no English and I no Turkish, he couldn’t explain what was about to happen. He dipped the Q Tip in, what I can only presume was meths and set light to it. It produced the sort of flame that those of us who flambé are used to; the only difference being that it didn’t go out – he then passed this burning brand across both ears to make sure that not one hair escaped. I thought that this is going to hurt (there was a moment or two when I flinched) and I also thought this is what it must be like for slaughtered beef and cattle when their carcasses are being singed.

Finally, an aftershave guaranteed to bring a sting to your cheek and a tear to your eye, a liberal dousing in a fragrant lemony spray, and a marvellous 15 minutes comes to an end and all for 5YTL, about £2.20. I’ve asked British stylists why they no longer provide this service and the usual litany of answers is ‘’health and safety’’, ‘’we don’t make any money because it takes too long’’ or ‘’nobody’s trained to do it anymore.’’

I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something but at least one backstreet barber in Ankara keeps going. The real tragedy of all this is that the hair on my chin grows ten times faster than the stuff on my head!

Posted by johnward 05:33 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

A Ferry to Byzantium (with thanks to WB Yeats)

Istanbul

0 °C

I was just finishing chatting to a friend of mine via email and I quickly wrote ''Must go. Off to Europe for breakfast.'' . It was only later that I thought that this is not something I would say in the normal run of things; but staying in Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city means having to do exactly that - visit Europe.

I've been fascinated by Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul in all its guises, for many years. So every time I pay my 1.50 YTL to cross the sea to the old city, I feel I'm setting out on an adventure. The ferries are workhorses, cutting across the mouth of the Bosphorus hundreds of times every day.

Bosphurus Ferry, Kadikoy Sunset

Bosphurus Ferry, Kadikoy Sunset

The boat from Kadikoy invariably leaves on time (but inevitably there is always someone who is late and has to make a scampering jump from dock to deck), and reverses from the pier into clear water, pointing its bow at our first stop, Haydarpasa Station. A gift from the German Kaiser to the Sultan, and finished in 1908, this neo Gothic creation is more palace than train station.

Haydarpasa Station (8)

Haydarpasa Station (8)

Haydarpasa Station (2)

Haydarpasa Station (2)


Even Attaturk, who didn't come to Istanbul for many years, visited in 1929

Today the staion is the gateway to Asian Turkey from Europe, whilst many Turks from Anatolia, in search of a better life in Istanbul, make the opposite trip to the city, often to be swallowed up in featureless suburbs.

Once clear of Haydarpasa, the ferry is back in clear water, dodging other ferries and small fishing boats and definitely giving a wide berth to the ocean going tankers and container ships, that drop anchor at the mouth of the Bosphorus.

I always sit upstairs on the open deck, never inside; I'm convinced I'm going to miss something. Up top, you can feel the wind and the rain and the sun and hear the gulls as they struggle for purchase when they land on the canvas roof for their free ride to the city. Up top, you can hear the engines turn over, change pitch; you can hear the water at the stern churn as the propellors begin to bite.

Always in front of you, is the Istanbul skyline. Off to the left, Aya Sofia, the six minarets of the Blue Mosque and the walled palace of Topkapi. Further to the right is the cascading bulk of the Yeni Mosque. Up ahead now is the Galata Bridge, linking some of the oldest parts of Istanbul with Galata itself, a one time independent Genoese enclave. Beyond Galata is Beyoglu, now considered the heart of modern Istanbul. The bridge, like the ferries is a real workhorse, moving pedestrians, cars, lorries and trams across the city, and allowing boats to pass underneath.

Galata Bridge (13)

Galata Bridge (13)


Galata is where you will find hundreds of anglers; some fishing for fun, some to put a little more food on the table

Galata Bridge (9)

Galata Bridge (9)

The first time I realised the ferry was to pass under the bridge I had real doubts as to whether this was going to work, there just didn't seem enough headroom. In fact the clearance is just a couple of feet and I remain convinced that if an unexpected swell ripped up the Bosphorus at an opportune moment, a boat will become jammed fast.

Once arrived at Eminonu you've some choices to make: up the hill to Sultanhamet, across the bridge to Galata and Karikoy, a trip up the Bosphorus or perhaps to the end of the Golden Horn or simply find a waterfront cafe, have a thick gloopy coffee or cay, and simply watch the world glide by.

There's something magical about a city that's brought together by little ships. Pamuk rhapsodises about growing up in an Istanbul where his father could recognise every ferry by its shape or sound and he loved the fact that the ferries made smoke that he compares to Arabic calligraphy,

The ferries great gift to the skyline is the smoke from their funnels

. He must be delighted that the ferries still make smoke.

Haydarpasa at Night

Haydarpasa at Night

Posted by johnward 11:31 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Barney's Field

0 °C

I've been 'travelling', 'seeing the world', 'dossing' whatever you want to call it since I was 19. My first big trip was to Greece in 1979 with my best mate Anthony. We turned up at Victoria Coach Station in London, climbed aboard the Magic Bus and drove for three days via Brindisi, until we rolled into Athens and and crashed for a few hours. I think it cost 50 quid to get there and back and we spent the next month or so jumping from island to island, simply having a good time.

Since then I've been to most of Europe, parts of Canada, the States, North Africa, Kenya, Israel, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka... the usual suspects; Five years ago I was trekking in Morocco, had a great time, met some nice people and at the end of it I gave my sleeping bag, my cold weather gear, and duvet jacket to one of the porters who'd been a great help to me when I injured my foot and I said to myself 'No more. I've seen enough of the world from the inside of a tent and a hard floor. I want a bit of comfort!'

For the last five years that's exactly what I 've done. I had a good job, no responsibilities - I could do what I wanted. So, how have I found myself in a hostel in Kadikoy, just across the water from the heart of Istanbul with four months ahead of me through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt?

The simple reason is that life happens; people change, circumstances change and if you're not careful, life starts to pass you by. I also turned 50 in March, which means that even if I live to be 100, I'm half way there! I'm not the same person I was at 19 when I headed off to Greece; what I want from seeing a new city or country now is not the same as it was then, and unlikely to be the same for any 19 year old who happens to be reading this. And so it shouldn't be.

I've been in Istanbul for almost two weeks. Every day I get aboard the Kadikoy - Eminonu ferry and relish that 15 minute ride into one of the greatest cities the world has ever seen. Today, its those experiences I relish and value above all.

Which brings me to why I've called this entry Barney's Field. Barney Ward or to give him his full name, Bernard Ward, was born as the 19th century became the 20th in a small place in Ulster called Killcrossduff in County Cavan. Killcrossduff is little more than a crossroads, with two houses facing each other. There's a mountain, or at least half a mountain, as it has been dug out for aggregates, a lake which was out of bounds to the local children as the fairies (not the Tinkerbell type, but vicious, cruel, other worldly creatures) would drag any waifs and strays down to drown and a church a couple of miles away. The people who live there are farmers and have always been farmers. A hundred metres up the road is a track and at the end of that track, in along demolished cottage, is where my grandfather was born. He was born there, lived there, died and was buried just a few miles away. He never learnt to read and write; I never knew him but I heard he was a hard man, but he and my grandmother raised a family, looked after them made sure they were educated and like that generation of Irish men and women, they had to leave Ireland for work.

Killcrossduff

Killcrossduff

One son went to Australia, a daughter went to London, another to Dublin and the youngest son, my father went to England where he had his own family. Barney's Field is still there, its used to graze cows now, but I was there with my father a few weeks ago and thought this is where it started for him - exile from his own country and perhaps it's where my own wanderlust started as well. Travel has very little to do with the amount of miles you cover, the important distance is travelled within yourself, and although Dad hasn't travelled that extensively, I wonder whether he's travelled further than I ever will.

Killcrossduff

Killcrossduff

This won't be a blog just about where I've been and what I've seen, but hopefully it'll be about how, if I'm prepared to lower my defences a smidgeon and place a prejudice on hold, the world doesn't have to be as frightening as we're told it is.
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Posted by johnward 11:26 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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